2 weeks after giving birth, teacher had a heart attack. Then a cardiac arrest.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Naiya Atkins had postpartum preeclampsia when she had a heart attack. Within a year, she got a new heart. (Photo courtesy of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center)
Naiya Atkins had postpartum preeclampsia when she had a heart attack. Within a year, she got a new heart. (Photo courtesy of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center)

After having their first child, Naiya Atkins and Tristan Griffith were settling into a routine. On leave from her job as a second grade teacher, Naiya was home with baby Joseph, whom they nicknamed JoJo. Tristan worked late hours and took care of JoJo at night.

JoJo was 2 weeks old when Naiya stood up from snuggling him in bed and almost fainted. The 37-year-old figured she was dizzy because of her postpartum preeclampsia, a high blood pressure condition some women experience after they have a baby.

Naiya took her blood pressure. It was high, but not drastically. She sat down to see if the feeling would pass. It didn't. Naiya felt hot, then cold. She called out to her mother, Betty Atkins-Carter, who was helping care for JoJo.

Then Naiya passed out.

Betty called 911, then Tristan. He was on his way home to New Jersey from his job at a New York City nursing home. When Tristan heard the news, he rushed off the bus and ran the last five blocks home.

When EMTs arrived, Naiya was conscious. They took her to the hospital where she'd given birth. Naiya had been born there, too.

"You had a heart attack," an ER doctor told her.

It had been caused by what's known as a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. Unlike a traditional heart attack, where a clot blocks blood from reaching the heart muscle, a SCAD blocks blood flow because of a separation, or tear, in the lining of the coronary artery wall.

She underwent a procedure to repair the damage, then recovered in the ICU.

An hour later, Tristan held his wife's hand in bed.

"I'm going to try to sleep," Naiya said.

She squeezed his hand, then her body started to shake. Alarms sounded. Nurses ran into the room. Tristan backed away. Betty was there too and she called out in a panicked voice, "Naiya!"

Naiya's heart had stopped beating. It was a cardiac arrest.

Nurses started CPR, then shocked Naiya with a defibrillator. Her heart started beating again.

"What happened?" Naiya said, looking around the room. "Why is everybody here?"

Doctors placed a balloon pump in her chest and gave her intravenous medications to help her heart more efficiently pump blood. She did cardiac rehabilitation to regain her strength.

The medications she had to take prevented her from breastfeeding. She missed bonding with JoJo. She missed even seeing him.

"I'm a new mom," she kept telling her doctors. Her plea worked, as Tristan and Betty were allowed to bring JoJo twice during Naiya's recovery.

Heart transplant recipient Naiya Atkins (left) with her son, Joseph, and husband, Tristan Griffith. (Photo courtesy of Naiya Atkins)
Heart transplant recipient Naiya Atkins (left) with her son, Joseph, and husband, Tristan Griffith. (Photo courtesy of Naiya Atkins)

Two weeks later, Naiya went home wearing a defibrillator vest that would shock her heart if it stopped beating again. Doctors considered implanting a defibrillator, but opted against it in hopes that her heart would heal.

Five months later, her heart still struggled to pump blood. Naiya got the defibrillator implanted in her chest. A month later, right at the start of a new school year, she felt better and decided to go back to work.

She set up her classroom and was excited to meet her new students. Just before school started, she had regular bloodwork done. On the third day of school, she was sitting in her classroom waiting for her students to return from their daily elective when her doctor called.

"Your organs are failing," he told her. "Come to the hospital immediately."

Naiya's heart was functioning at only 15% capacity. She needed a heart transplant.

After additional tests, Naiya went home with intravenous medication to keep her heart stable. In November, her doctor gave her a choice: She could stay home with the IV, or come back to the hospital, which would likely put her higher up on the transplant list.

Naiya spent Thanksgiving with her family, then returned to the hospital. She got weepy when she thought about missing JoJo's first Christmas. She thought of the big picture, that missing this one meant she would be with him for many more.

In Naiya's hospital room, Betty hung a garland she made with JoJo's picture. A friend and nurse at the hospital gifted Naiya a mini-Christmas tree and lights. On Christmas, she took a photo with a nurse who dressed up as the Grinch.

Every few days in December, Naiya's doctor came to see her.

"Naiya, I'm going to find you a heart this week," he would say each time.

"All right," she would reply. "I'll be waiting."

Less than a week into the new year, her doctor called. "Naiya, I found you a heart." Tears flowed down her cheeks. She had the transplant the next day.

After three weeks of physical therapy and nearly a year after her heart attack, Naiya went home to JoJo the day before his first birthday.

Betty Atkins-Carter with grandson Joseph at his 1st birthday party. (Photo courtesy of Naiya Atkins)
Betty Atkins-Carter with grandson Joseph at his 1st birthday party. (Photo courtesy of Naiya Atkins)

She and Tristan sang "Happy Birthday" and shared a cupcake. Since coming home, Naiya has happily spent her days bonding with her baby. One day, she took him to a store to make a stuffed animal together.

She's had regular bloodwork to make sure her body doesn't reject her new heart. While the first five tests looked fine, the most recent one suggested her body could be starting to reject the heart. Her doctors at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center gave her more steroids to try to prevent that from happening.

"I'm still in the journey," Naiya said. "But I'm in good spirits. I have a different mindset now. I know not everything is going to go as planned. But I am looking forward to getting back to work and the day-to-day."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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